Fillon apologises to French people in ‘Penelopegate’ fightback
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France’s embattled conservative candidate François Fillon on Monday apologised for the "mistake" he made in hiring his wife as a parliamentary aide, though refusing to abandon his bid for the Elysée Palace.
The conservative nominee, whose candidacy has been derailed by a festering scandal involving his wife Penelope’s alleged “fake jobs”, told a news conference that he did not act illegally and would pursue his campaign for the presidency. But he apologised to the French people for employing his wife, saying it was a “mistake” he “deeply regretted”. Fillon said he had hired family members "out of trust", but recognised that such practices “create distrust nowadays”.
Once a hot favourite for the presidency, the champion of free-market policies has seen his campaign unravel in the two weeks since satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé reported his wife had been paid hundreds of thousands of euros from state coffers. Since the scandal broke, he and his wife have been interviewed by the fraud police, his office in parliament has been searched, and the inquiry has now been extended to two of his grown-up children.
Under French law it is not illegal for MPs to employ family members as assistants, provided they actually do the work. But the Canard claimed it could find no evidence that Mrs Fillon had been doing her job as parliamentary assistant for her husband and later another MP.
The accusations have shattered Fillon’s carefully-crafted image as the candidate of “integrity”. They also sit uncomfortably with his drastic plans to slash public spending and sack half a million public servants.
According to a survey published in the Journal du Dimanche, France’s main Sunday newspaper, 68% of French voters want Fillon to quit. In parts of the country, a leafleting campaign aimed at casting the scandal as a left-wing conspiracy had to be abandoned at the weekend amid a torrent of abuse from members of the public.
Monday’s press conference signaled a change of tack by the former prime minister, whose calamitous defence had been roundly mocked in the press. Fillon had initially railed against the “misogyny” of the satirical weekly that broke the story, before accusing the left of plotting an “institutional coup” designed to oust him. This time he attempted a delicate balancing act, seeking to appear contrite while still protesting his innocence and chastising the media.
Fillon, who pulled off a surprise win in a primary organised by the conservative Les Républicains party in November, said he understood the public’s “legitimate dismay”, though describing his wife’s employment as “legal and transparent”, and her salary as “justified”. He said the tasks she performed were “vital” to his role as an elected official, dismissing the idea – rumoured earlier in the day – that he might reimburse the money she earned. “It is not up to the media to judge me, it is up to the French people to decide,” he added.
His counter-attack follows a gripping primary season that ripped apart the script for France’s presidential election, making and unmaking candidacies virtually overnight. It comes after rival candidates flexed their muscles at rallies over the weekend, kicking off the campaign for the Elysée Palace with a bang. From far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who doubled up as a hologram in twin rallies 500km apart, to the far right’s Marine Le Pen, all the key players were on stage – except the embattled conservative.
“It’s extraordinary to think that the man who only two weeks ago was seen as the likeliest winner of the presidential election has completely abandoned the field to his opponents,” said Jean Pétaux, a political analyst at Sciences-Po Bordeaux.
‘No is no’
The crisis has exposed deep rifts within the alliance of centrist and right-leaning politicians that support Fillon’s candidacy. The 62-year-old is under pressure from some in his own camp to drop out of the race as polls now say he will fail to reach the May 7 presidential run-off. Two Les Républicains lawmakers have openly called for a replacement candidate. Names in the frame for a hasty appointment include Alain Juppé, the primary’s runner-up, and third-placed former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Juppé, a former prime minister, has so far resisted such calls. He again ruled himself out on Monday, saying in a tweet that "no is no".
Fillon himself dismissed talk of a "Plan B" at Monday's press conference. "Those who want me to withdraw are a small minority," he argued, adding: "I'm in the campaign to win it". Should he be forced to quit as the centre-right's nominee, it would be unprecedented in six decades of French politics.
The former prime minister has said he will only step down if investigators decide to press charges against him. But time is playing against Les Républicains. Presidential candidates have until March 17 to formally declare their bids. If Fillon is charged after that date, and keeps his word by quitting, then the conservatives would find themselves in the extraordinary situation of having no candidate in an election that was theirs to lose.